Written by The Fish
(Fair warning, potential for ranting in the following post.)
Like the rest of America, I have been incredibly frustrated with the increasingly partisan tactics and squabbles in the federal government. When one party's stubborn ideological stance creates a crisis in our govenment serious enough that the media is predicting a market crash in response, we all see that there is a problem.
Where most observers might just stop at "all our representatives are being jackasses," (which I agree with wholeheartedly) to explain the trends that brought us all to this era of blockheaded politicians, it's also possible that advances in communication technology make this behavior inevitable.
Communication is so simple right now, media so cheap to create and distribute, that we have even given a name to the cottage industry of news and opinion has been granted the term "citizen journalist." The internet and mobile communication has proven to be a democratizing force that has brought revolution and social change in the "arab spring," validating the power of free information and free speech to change the world.
But fundamental behind the new era of communication is a shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting. There are many elements to it; Digital TV and radio pack tens (or hundreds) of stations into the wavelength that used to hold one analog station, digital cable and satellite radio expand that even further by offering tens of thousands of programming choices, RSS (that stands for Real Simple Syndication) running, people spend half their time on increasingly 'important' social networks, web 2.0, and all the news that you could ever need you can get off your cell phone.
What all of this technology is geared toward is to bring you, the consumer, the content you want to see/read/hear as easily and reliably as possible. If you get the information you like reliably from one source, that means you will reliably come back to that source. Which means that source can count you as a regular, predicatble number for their advertising reach, which in turn makes advertisers happy, and makes for a sucessful media business.
The downside of this? In choosing news and media based on one's existing opinioins and preferences, the narrowcasting methodolgy has set up a giant cognitive feedback system that informs us 24/7 that we are right, that there are people out there that support our opinions. Worse, even when we do see media that challenges our assumptions, it can be more easily written off as "having an agenda" or "just a minority opinion."
And just as we select our facebook friends, our twitter feeds, our news outlets... well, our representatives are using the same technology to create the same positive reinforcement feedback loops and getting the same tunnelvision effect. Even if you've got an opinion shared by less than 10 percent of the population, it can feel like the whole world is behind you, because that's all you ever see and hear. Your opinion, and all those annoying people that have a different view (who have an agenda anyway, and you never have to listen to.)
At least, this is how I explain where America finds its self. With politicans who get up on national platforms and make insane and outrageous statements on a regular basis, who seem to have no common sense, and yet are convinced that all of america is behind them. This is what is reinforcing a national "us or them mentality," and convincing our elected officials that there aren't any moderates out here in the country any more. This is certainly what is behind fanatic extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik in Sweden, just as strongly as it motivated just a few hundred Tunisians and Egyptions to take an otherwise insane stand against their own governments.
And it's why the governor of Texas and presidential hopeful can deny the scientific evidence for climate change even while his own state is suffering the worst drought in history, while New England experiences historic flooding.
We obviously can't roll back the technology, and go back to a time when three networks gave us all our news and opinions. That would be equally foolish anyway, relying on a the hegemonic media aristocracy to control the national dialogue. We probably can't even reign it in.
But we do have to, as a nation, be aware enough to halt that feedback mechanisim and retain some common sense. We can blame the politicans all we want, but they are listening. They are listening to a very vocal minority that are telling them exactly what they want to hear. That's where we have to choose how we use the technology.
If we don't stop this runaway narrowcasting train, the insane brinksmanship from the 2011 debt debate will undoubtedly be onlt the first volley in an insane partisan cataclysm as our society, "freed" and "enlightend" by the information revolution, slowly tears itself apart into clans and subcultures.
Sunday, September 11 2011, 04:36 PM